Saturday, March 13, 2010

Homegrown mushrooms

I awoke this morning to find that the lettuce has emerged in the cold frame. The first spring harvest is near! Well, the first spring garden harvest. We did eat homegrown food this week -- fresh food, that didn't come from a jar or my dried stores. Pictured above are specimens from my second crop of shiitake mushrooms. I grew them from one of those kits that you can buy in the many seed catalogs that besiege the hibernating gardener.

Pound for pound, this is not a cost-effective way to put mushrooms on the table. For a third of the price of the kit, I could buy a nice big bag of mushrooms from the farmer's market. I do like to grow my own food and it has been interesting to see the whole growth process, start to finish. Yet if I want to eat mushrooms in a financially sustainable way, the farmer's market is the clear choice. It seems like a more cost-effective way to grow at home would be to buy a big bag of plugs and innoculate a hardwood log in my yard, or scatter spawn in a large compost box...all more of an investment of time and money than I am ready to make at present. Just the care and feeding of the small mushroom kit was a little fussy for my taste -- it needs a humidity tent and regular misting, which proves challenging if we are out of the house for a few days. I am not ready to deal with a big box or log.

The shiitakes I have grown are bigger than the kind I see at the grocery store and, since they are newly harvested, quite moist and delicate. Clearly, they haven't been desiccating on a grocery store shelf for over a week. My shiitakes stood up well to stir-frying, but truth be told, I like dried shiitakes better for this kind of dish. I get a big bag of dried shiitakes from the Asian market and a few of these caps -- rehydrated in boiling water -- add a tasty, chewy bite to my stir-fries. Of course, who knows what type of farm the store mushrooms come from? The bag in my pantry reads "made in China". Now, I know there are likely some pockets of environmentally responsible agriculture in China, but whenever I read about Chinese farming and exports, I get a bit nervous about what's on my plate. I recently read Fuschia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, and her reports of agricultural pollution and environmental destruction was a bleak moment in an otherwise warm memoir of the Chinese culinary scene.

Wild mushroom hunting has always fascinated me, but I am too chicken to really get into it. This book, Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States, may change my mind, especially since it features many color photographs (black and white field guide drawings just ain't gonna cut it for me!). I would love to forage my own morels. Considering my husband was skittish about eating my shiitakes, I'm not sure I'll have an enthusiastic partner on this one. But, given the pollution issues of large-scale agricultural production, why do we feel safer with something packaged on our shelf? Shouldn't the dried shiitakes give more pause?


  1. Honestly, I don't think I've ever thought about dried mushrooms from an environmental pollutant standpoint -- but clearly I ought to. I mean, mushrooms are known to absorb contaminants; right?

    I've been thinking about getting one of those kits... but every time I read the instructions I couldn't picture myself making the time investment. We went to a couple of meetings of a local mushroom enthusiast group, but were put off by the feeling that one would have to have a huge quantity of knowledge and training before feeling comfortable putting *any* wild mushroom in our mouths. :(

  2. Abbie, I really commend you for your efforts, especially in a smaller urban environment, to make things better for you and your family.

    I remember the year I rented a plot, no running water, it was a bit overwhelming. I lugged water and had a crop that fed my whole neighborhood. I don't garden on this scale anymore, but it's such fun hearing what you are doing!


  3. the mushrooms look great - and you're lucky to be able to find them at a farmers market. After reading about the effort part, I think I'll have to count myself out, as well. Too bad; when will something be ridiculously easy?

  4. Using a sealed container, like a plastic storage bin with a 1" layer of damp perlite on the bottom will keep the relative humidity high enough fir mushroom fruiting. I've grown other species, but it would likely work with shiitakes. Misting is a pain. I had a nice automated setup I can explain in more detail if you're interested.

    Does your husband have access to university autoclave? My mini-clave broke. But pressure cookers can work. Bulk substrate, here we come.

  5. @Dr. Fun-guy -- the words "autoclave" and "automated setup" make my eyes glaze over...not for this gardener.

    @meredith I am intimated too by the amount of knowledge needed to forage....and why would folks want to share their special hunting grounds?

    @JP -- maybe you should try to grow them and sell them at your farmer's market -- niche opportunity!

    @Gatsby's, thanks for the encouragement!